How and Why an Institution Must Transform

August 4, 2010
By Rita Boland

The feel and focus of LandWarNet took on a slightly different feel this afternoon as retired IBM Chief Executive Officer Louis V. Gerstner took the stage to discuss institutional transformation. Rather than address military-specific needs, Gerstner explained how he worked to turn around IBM by changing the entire culture of the organization. He told listeners to take the lessons he imparted and apply them as appropriate to military needs. According to Gerstner, at some point successful organizations will face a time when outside influences demand a complete institutional transformation. Unfortunately, many will not be able to make the necessary adjustments and will ultimately fail. While this may not matter much in the world in many cases, he said, the military cannot fail. It must succeed. For a true institutional transformation to take place, an organization must have two things, Gerstner explained: leadership and a deep understanding of the culture of an organization. Leaders get people to do things they wouldn't do otherwise; culture is what people do when no one is looking. Gerstner shared that to succeed, leaders have to constantly, unflinchingly communicate and demonstrate the necessary changes to the people in the organization. One of the biggest challenges to culture institutional transformation is what Gerstner calls "the middle." These people have invested and succeeded under the old culture and don't want to see new processes introduced. Leaders must check in with personnel and ensure they're making the adjustments to the new culture. Leadership also must do what it can to help people adjust to the changes, but leaders cannot allow those who would work against the transformation to remain in place. Allowing former behaviors to exist in the new culture is a drain to establishing the new culture and making people want to be a part of it. Though Gerstner did not touch on the military or its need to change, his speech touched on comments by senior Army leaders at this event about the need for the Army to adjust to the new technology available and the adaptive enemies the military faces. Technology is forcing the military to reevaluate its acquisition processes, its force structure and other facets of its operations. It also is flattening the chain of command in many ways as younger soldiers expect quicker information sharing practices.

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